The shame of Sichuan's tofu schools

Parents who lost children in shoddy schools in the 2008 earthquake are still treated like criminals for trying to bring those responsible to book

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:07pm


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Five years after the deadly earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan, dozens of parents are still seeking justice for children who died when their shoddily built schools collapsed. Other families, however, have abandoned their struggle over the years, under immense pressure from the government.

Zhou Xingrong, whose 15-year-old son, Lu Qianliang, died when Juyuan Middle School collapsed on May 12, 2008, told the South China Morning Post about the heavy price paid in her fight for what she believed was right.

Devastated by the loss of her only child, Zhou also had to endure losing personal freedoms - she hasn't even been allowed to mourn her loss in public.

"Dujiangyan may be the city that reacted the hardest to protesters," Zhou said. "I don't know of another place that detained parents of deceased schoolchildren. As far as I know, more than 10 parents of Juyuan Middle School victims were taken into custody, not to mention [parents of children at] Xinjian Primary School [where more than 200 pupils died]."

Officials say about 280 students and teachers died at Juyuan Middle School, but independent investigations put the toll at more than 300.

On the first quake anniversary in 2009, Zhou was intercepted by police on her way to the scene of the disaster. She wanted to light firecrackers and burn paper offerings she had bought for her son. Instead, she was locked up for three days for attempting to mourn at the school ruins.

In July 2009, accompanied by her husband and another couple who lost their child in the same school, Zhou went to Beijing to petition - the only recourse for the parents as no court in the country will hear their case.

Before long, the four found themselves in a "black jail"- an extralegal detention centre - on the outskirts of Beijing. There were no windows, and an unbearable stench permeated the building. After being held for a fortnight, she was escorted back to Dujiangyan by police.

Zhou said that, over the years, she has been repeatedly put under house arrest, detained four times and sent back to the black jail for a couple of weeks.

In the days ahead of each of the four quake anniversaries, authorities invariably dispatched people to "accompany" her, Zhou said.

"For example, a handful of them came to my door on May 5 last year. They stayed by my side around the clock and drove me wherever I wanted to go until May 13."

Such treatment is no different to house arrest, she said, as it effectively bars her from petitioning or accepting interviews with foreign journalists during the politically sensitive period each year around the anniversary.

The magnitude 8.0 quake that tore through the southwestern province killed 87,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands of others. While the public accepted the tragedy as a fact of nature in Sichuan, the deaths of so many children and teachers in their classrooms was unforgivable.

Photos posted online by volunteers at the scene revealed that many of the schools had been poorly built, with insufficient steel reinforcement bars and substandard concrete.

A month after the quake, China News Service cited official figures that about 4,700 students had died when more than 7,000 school buildings collapsed in the disaster zone. The agency also reported that an official 700-member taskforce had found that substandard construction has caused the buildings to fail.

But, as pressure mounted and the public calls grew louder for officials to be held accountable, a gagging order was imposed on media reports about the schools.

Discussions about the "tofu schools" - the term "tofu project" was coined by former premier Zhu Rongji in 1998 during a tour of collapsed dykes on the Yangtze River that he described as "flimsy and porous as tofu dregs" - became taboo. Activists and parents who tried to dig deeper were persecuted.

In March 2011, Beijing artist Ai Weiwei was detained after launching an online campaign to record the number of school children killed in the quake area. Tan Zuoren, an activist based in the provincial capital Chengdu, estimated that more than half of the deaths of schoolchildren and teachers were the result of substandard construction.

Tan was jailed for five years in 2010, officially for subversion for participating in a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. But his supporters believe the sentence was retaliation for Tan's independent probe into the schools scandal.

Although the persecution has forced many parents of victims to stop petitioning, Zhou said everyone still knows the truth.

Regarding the new national leadership appointed ahead of this year's quake anniversary, Zhou said she "would like to write to them, demanding they keep an eye on the relatives of those killed … especially those like me who can no longer bear children".

If my daughter were still alive, she would have turned 19 and been admitted to university this year

Like Zhou, Shang Guoying said she was repeatedly harassed by police as she sought justice for her daughter, Ren Sha , one of at least 400 students who died in Xiange Middle School, about 40 kilometres from Dujiangyan.

Although the parents insist that the central government promised them 200,000 yuan (HK$250,000) in compensation - no document has been found to support the claim - Shang said many bereaved parents received no more than 80,000 yuan, from the Red Cross Society. The shortfall prompted hundreds of them to protest outside Dujiangyan's petition office early last year.

The protesters were sent home to Xiange town, Shang said. The Dujiangyan Propaganda Department could not be reached for comment.

"Nobody dared to raise questions about where the money went since more than 10 parents were detained for a week or two after being intercepted on their way to petition in Beijing in the first half of last year," she said.

Shang was left to draw her own conclusion about the cause of her daughter's death: "The contractors who built the tofu projects are responsible."

She said many people believed that local officials took kickbacks from contractors who may have fled the country after the quake.

"If my daughter were still alive, she would have turned 19 and been admitted to university this year," Shang murmured as her eyes welled up. She no longer petitions, and has moved into Dujiangyan to build a new life.

Meanwhile, Zhou insists she will continue petitioning. "I will keep fighting for justice for my son," she said.